Open educational resources (OERs) are free digitized materials offered to educators, students, and self-learners under a Creative Commons (or other "open") license that allows users to copy, use, adapt, and redistribute for educational and research purposes.
Works that are in the public domain also fall into the category of OERs and are free to use by the public.
The 5Rs of OERs
To encourage educators to embrace the openness of OERs, a framework was established, known as the 5Rs, to define the rights of open content and provide guidance on how to use these resources. These rights are maintained by open licensing organizations such as Creative Commons and enable creators to publicly claim how their work can be used.
Make and own copies of the resource indefinitely
Use the resource in a variety of ways
Adapt, modify and improve the resource
Combine the resource with other resources to create a new work
Share the resource with others
Brief History of OERs
When OERs were introduced to the education world in 2002, skeptics questioned whether an open resource model would work. Faculty, college administrators, and others were concerned whether OERs could match the quality and authority of textbooks and supplemental materials published by the established textbook providers.
In the following years, as more organizations and institutions started open publishing programs, and Creative Commons began its licensing platform to certify and kick-start the open licensed model, some educators still questioned how effective OERs could be and whether they could live up to their promise as free or low-cost replacements for traditional textbooks.
Today, the evidence is starting to mount that OERs really can have a positive impact on the educational system, from K-12 through postgraduate programs. And these impacts are both financial and performative.
Why Use OERs?
Initially, many educators, academic leaders, students, policy makers, and others advocated for the use of OERs in higher education because of the cost savings for students and families that open resources offered. The expense of traditional textbooks and supplementary materials continued to rise throughout the 1990s and 2000s, costing students on average $1,240 per school year, according to The College Board (2019).
Research showed that many students took fewer classes in order to afford their textbooks or did not purchase some textbooks at all, hoping to keep up by borrowing other students' materials or purchasing used editions. In a survey of 21,000 students in 2018, 64.2 percent of responders indicated that they did not purchase a required textbook for a class due to price, and another 42.8 percent said that they took fewer classes due to the high cost of textbooks and other learning materials (Florida Virtual Campus, 2018).
Many faculty and college administrators began to view the textbook dilemma as an accessibility issue, in which low-income and underserved students were increasingly at a disadvantage with their better-off peers, who could afford the textbooks more easily. OERs an effective way to ensure that all students, regardless of economic status, had the resources they needed to succeed. When UMGC began transitioning to OERs in 2013, the issues of costly textbooks and college accessibility contributed to the decision.
Benefits of OERs Beyond Cost Savings
As OERs became increasingly available during the 2000s and have continued to expand worldwide, higher education institutions began to adopt OERs into their courses—even offering "zero textbook" classes. With the growth in OERs, educators began to realize that the benefits went beyond saving money for students.
Driven by innovative faculty, educators began adapting OERs for their purposes, creating original course content that involved and engaged students in ways that textbook reading and practice did not. In the process, teachers began to assess the materials and learning outcomes of their courses in a more deliberate manner because they now had the freedom to adapt, modify, and correlate those resources in a more targeted way.
College Board. (2019). Average estimated undergraduate budgets, 2018–19. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/average-estimated-undergraduate-budgets-2018-19
Florida Virtual Campus, Office of Distance Learning & Student Services. (2018, December 20). 2018 student textbook and course materials survey. Retrieved from https://dlss.flvc.org/documents/210036/1314923/2018+Student+Textbook+and+Course+Materials+Survey+-+Executive+Summary.pdf/3c0970b0-ea4b-9407-7119-0477f7290a8b
Griffiths, R., Gardner, S., , P., Shear, L., Ball, A., , J., Wang, S., … Staisloff, R. (2018). Participant experiences and financial impacts: Findings from year 2 of Achieving the Dream's OER degree initiative. Menlo Park, CA: SRI International.